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Saturday, 31 May 2014

Joe Scarborough Continues to Misinform the Public about Autism

So Joe Scarborough is at it again.

This marks his second appearance in the blog for passing off his opinions about autism as fact on MSNBC (and, researching this story today, I found out that he's done it a third time that I missed), and I'm writing about it to add my voice to those that are asking that he please not do it again.

We've already got PETA warning people this week about a totally unsubstantiated claim that there's a link between autism and consumption of dairy products. We don't need Joe Scarborough expounding on what appears to be a favourite talking point about a supposed link between autism and violent behaviour.

Quite enough of that has been going on since last Friday.

 

Mass Killings and the Media's Love Affair with the Autism-Violence "Link"


It's been just over a week since Elliot Rodger opened fire in Isla Vista, killing 7 people and wounding 13 others. And, of course, the media has been making much of the fact that he was autistic, although some sources are now disputing that he was actually diagnosed; see here and here.

Here are 4 articles from major news sources I found just by doing a quick search, that commented on the fact that Rodger was autistic, implying a link (more strongly in some cases than others) to his violent behaviour:

California killer's father struggled with money, court documents show

Mental illness in spotlight after UC Santa Barbara rampage

Virgin killer's parents read his hate-filled manifesto then called police then rushed to stop him when they heard of murder spree on their car radio

Elliot Rodger is Isla Vista drive-by killer

And, of course, Joe Scarborough felt compelled to comment, as he did regarding the gunmen in the Aurora, Colorado movie theatre shooting in 2012 (he stayed blessedly quiet after the Newtown shootings), that Rodger had Asperger's Syndrome (which now falls under the umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorders). It makes perfect sense to him to talk about this, as he knows there's clearly a link between an autism diagnosis and the tendency to commit this sort of violence. He's done this twice about Elliot Rodger.

Except that the consensus is now that there's not a link. I'd expect Joe Scarborough to know this, as a media person.

I'd expect that Joe Scarborough would have done his research on this, and that he'd know that scientists no longer put much stock on the studies that originally suggested those findings (see this article for a brief summary of the research). Perhaps he thought that there's a bandwagon on which to jump at the moment, given that the Washington Post wrote an article recently about a new study suggesting a link, but it's looking like even that study was flawed.

The research just doesn't support the idea. But Joe Scarborough wants to keep talking like it does. And it's important that he stop.

Why is it Important, Joe Scarborough?


I'm not writing about this because I had particularly strong feelings either way about Joe Scarborough or MSNBC before this latest "commentary". Granted, I wasn't a huge fan of either. But my cable package doesn't let me get MSNBC so it's kind of a moot point. I rarely watch 24-hours news channels these days anyway.

I have strong feelings now. I definitely wouldn't watch MSNBC, even given the opportunity, as long as they think it's okay to let this sort of ablism continue to happen on the network.

This is important, Joe Scarborough, because after a highly emotionally charged event like the UCSB shootings, people are upset and hearing selectively. From what I saw and read, the media was a bit better than after Newtown especially about explicitly stating that even though the shooter was autistic, experts didn't believe that it was a factor in his behaviour, instead of just jumping on the "autism = violence" bandwagon with no qualifying statements. I will give them that. However, people were (are) understandably in shock, and sad...angry, scared, and looking for the "why" behind the event, and in that state, hearing "Elliot Rodger had high-functioning autism" (yes, I've seen it put that way, even though using the functioning level label is quickly falling from favour within the disability community...there are sensitivity issues in the coverage for which the media does not get a free pass) is going to stick with them.

Especially when a media figure like Joe Scarborough goes beyond speculation and starts deliberately giving out information based on pseudo-science and/or outdated research. It's bad enough that 24-hour news networks speculate about the details of a story because they don't know enough facts yet and they still need to fill time (and regular CNN viewers know that it's come back to bite that channel in the ass before). It's quite another to start giving out the wrong information about a group that's already fighting misinformation campaigns and discrimination when the right information is easily accessible.

It's unethical and irresponsible on Joe Scarborough's part, and it's just another sign of how devalued autistic people truly are in society that MSNBC hasn't reprimanded him for it, or reprimanded him more publicly, if they did. He did release an "apology" in an off-air statement after pushback after his remarks after the Colorado shootings, but there was nothing on-air.  If he'd started going on, on-air, about an unsubstantiated claim that belonging to a certain race made someone more likely to commit mass violence, I would think (hope) that the network would shut it down promptly and emphatically and require, at the very least, an on-air apology. Certainly two repeat offenses would likely result in the person being fired.

Why is this different? Why has Joe Scarborough gotten away with doing this three times?

Imagine How It Must Feel, Joe Scarborough


I know that the autism witch hunt after these events has gotten to the point where one of the first things I ask myself after hearing about a mass shooting like the one at UCSB is, "I wonder how long it will be before someone asks whether the shooter is/was autistic."

I'm not autistic, so I can't understand what it must feel like to know, for autistic people,  that it's never very long.

I try to think how I'd feel if the question was about an unsubstantiated link between stroke and violent behaviour that the media kept insisting on bringing up, and as someone who would be then be affected by the question, these feelings come to mind:

Dread.

Fear.

Anger.

Helplessness.

Sadness.

It's a heck of a lot to shoulder. It'd be quite a thing to explain to an autistic child (to any child): "You're okay...they're only saying that because they thought at one point that autistic people were more violent than other people. They were wrong about it, but they...can't let it go."

Let it Go, Joe Scarborough


Joe Scarborough, no one likes being lied about, especially when those lies are damaging.  If you feel the need to speak about autism in connection to mass shootings, speak about it accurately.

For the sake of your autistic son, if no one else.

With all due respect, I don't want to have to write about you (at least not in this context) again.

For those interested...

Joe Scarborough's commentary after the 2012 movie theatre shootings in Aurora, Colorado



Commentary on the "non-apology" and a great interview on the autism-violence "link" with Autism Self-Advocacy Network President Ari Ne'eman and journalist Mike Elk (also after the Aurora shootings)



Joe Scarborough's first comments after the UCSB shootings - "...he was on the Asperger's scale - big surprise."



Joe Scarborough's most recent comments. The general comments about talking about mental health are spot on - but he brings it back to Asperger's Syndrome, which he doesn't feel he can name on the air because of criticism that he's (rightfully) received in the past after doing so.

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